Houston: A city divided

Income inequality has become one of the defining social issues of our time — at the forefront of the 2016 presidential race, addressed by Pope Francis, studied by academics and journalists alike.

I  spent six months examining how income inequality and economic segregation play out in Houston — a city that is at once full of opportunity and obstacles. The result was this five-part series called The Divide.

Part 1: What are the barriers facing one family as they try to break out of the lower end of the economic spectrum?

As she maneuvers a metal cart past the refrigerated cases of Food Town, Valanda Streets does quick mental calculations.

She adds up the price of pork chops and chicken parts, subtracts the amount from what she can afford to spend, and weighs the cost against what it will take to keep her family fed.

She shakes her head at the ground beef (“too high,” she commiserates with a fellow shopper), then devotes a good five minutes studying crisp bundles of collard greens.

Her eyes fix on the sign above the emerald bouquets: $1.29. She does the math.

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Part 2: One Houston school believes it has found one answer to closing the economic gap

If Jarvis Cormier was nervous about his first outing with his mentors from Yellowstone Academy, it didn’t show. On that day in May, around his 11th birthday, Jarvis was his laconic self – no glimpse of anxiety, no hint of unease.

Not so with his mom.

Natasha Love felt flutters of concern, even though she had already met and immediately liked the young couple who had spent three months getting to know Jarvis during weekly visits to the school.

The year had been a particularly tough one. Love’s fiancé had lost his job. Her paycheck, as an operator in an energy company call center, had been erratic. Rent was past due. Bills were piling up. She could not afford a birthday celebration for Jarvis.

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Part 3: Finding a better place to live is key to a better life, but the barriers can be insurmountable

The tick of a clock thrummed through Jessica Vaughn’s head like a migraine.

She had not fallen asleep – on an air mattress wedged in the cramped living room – until well past 3 the night before, her nerves coiled with worry.

Now she was stationed on a red sofa a few feet from her makeshift bedroom, blinds shutting out the morning sun. Her eyes volleyed from the HP laptop balanced on her knees to the smartphone swaddled in a faded lavender case.

Her fingers swiped across one screen, then another, then back again. She scrolled through the rentals on She scribbled addresses on a ledger pad already filled with listings. She left another message for her broker.

A deadline loomed.

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Part 4: Lack of transportation keeps many from moving up the ladder. One Houston group is trying to change that

Shortly before 8:30 on a temperate November morning, Jose Perales’ cellphone starts to sound.

“Hola. Buenos dias. Si, voy en camino para alla,” Perales answers. Good morning. Yes, I’m on my way.

Just like that, faster than Uber, the Magic Bus is seven minutes from its first passenger of the day.

For the next 12 hours, the bus – in actuality, a brightly painted van bearing the slogan “For all who labor for a better life” – will make 20-minute loops around Gulfton, a working-class neighborhood of apartment complexes and strip malls in southwest Houston.

It will trundle past fruterias and carnicerias, dollar stores and washaterias, charter school campuses and health clinics, wind along Gulfton Avenue and Bellaire Boulevard, rattle down Chimney Rock and up Hillcroft.

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Part 5: Is gentrification deepening Houston’s economic divide?

Six years ago, when Kallie Benes and her husband were looking for a home to buy, Shady Acres was a jumble of well-kept bungalows and faltering wood-frame houses, “sketchy” apartment complexes and smatterings of new construction.

Trailer parks and halfway houses dotted the streets in a place named for the shade trees that once grew abundant on one-acre lots. Elderly residents, who came up in the days when an oil pipeline divided the black side of the working-class community from the white, still occupied many of the small, single-family homes.

But it felt safe, it was close to downtown and – most importantly – it was within reach for young professionals who couldn’t afford the upscale townhomes and pricey cottages of the nearby Heights.

Benes, director of youth services at the Houston Public Library, and her husband, who works for J.P. Morgan, liked the “eclectic vibe” and sensed potential. So they made offers on three houses. The first fell through. The second descended into a bidding war – a harbinger, Benes realizes in retrospect, of things to come.

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